Radical Possibilities

05/11/2013 Leave a comment

Nobody wants their child to be indoctrinated by their teachers. Much of the type of teaching in today’s classrooms is a form of indoctrination. This indoctrination is one in which teachers are the knowledge keepers and students are lucky to have the teachers there to impart that knowledge on them. What are the implications of this type of teaching? What is it that we want out of our students? Do we want them to fit into a mold the we predetermine using high-stakes standardized tests and a national curriculum? Corporations and businesses are complaining the the quality of students is lacking, but they support reform that is based on rigidity of curriculum and standardized testing. Students lack skills because the type of education being pushed in most areas is one that limits possibilities and cuts students off from innovative thinking.

In Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” he describes the atmosphere in which good ideas come from,

“Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts–mechanical or conceptual–and they encourage novel ways of combining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations–by punishing experimentation  by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bother to explore the edges–will, on average, generate and circulate few innovations than environments that encourage exploration.”

The situations that create the most innovative ideas are ones that allow experimentation. This allows for people to engage with other points of view, work on compromise, and work collaboratively.  All the talk about education reform is important, but too much of it is trying to limit new combinations of thought. Instead, what we are getting simplistic ideas like merit pay, high-stakes testing, and common core standards to fix our education problems. We are not going to solve our problems by creating a nation of clones who all learn the exact same stuff, the exact same way.

What I would like to do is bring this idea down on a micro-level and describe the implications for students in social studies classrooms.

The common feedback you hear from kids about social studies classes is that they are boring. In some classes all you do is memorize facts and regurgitate them back for a test. What does this say about what we expect from our students? Where are the possibilities for innovative thinking in the social studies classroom?

The problem with a social studies class like history is that their is so much information that can be covered. Teachers are forced to rush through curriculum to make sure all the required topics are covered that will show up on that high-stakes test that probably will be the basis of the teachers pay, or whether they have a job next year. Teaching for breadth instead of depth like this forces teachers to include less information and less analyzation of topics. Students will hear one side of a story and believe that’s all there is to it. It simplifies the complicated in a way that is untrue.

Social studies classes should slow down teaching and dig deeper into the subjects. By going into the depths of topics the students will not only get a better understanding of events, but also realize the many points of view involved in history education.

Linda Darling-Hammond describes how it’s done in other countries,

“Interesting, while U.S. teachers feel pressured to rush through topics, covering them superficially, international assessments have shown that higher-scoring countries in mathematics and science teach fewer concepts than most U.S. schools do each year, but teach them more deeply, so that students have a stronger foundation to support higher-order learning in the upper grades, Ironically, states that test large numbers of topics in a grade level may encourage more superficial coverage leading to less solid learning. Furthermore, increases in test scores on rote-oriented tests to do not stimulate increases on assessments that look for analytic thinking and application of knowledge.” (pg. 72 The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future)

Wouldn’t this make business happier? To have workers who are capable of analytic thinking and application of knowledge? You would think so. If a student can read, write, and speak critically don’t you think most skills would be within their reach?

Who cares if students can memorize facts? Many of these facts are decontextualized anyways. We should want students in classrooms to critically analyze things and become knowledge producers. This should be the goal of a good social studies class. This is not a war against facts. This is a fight against the narrowing of the curriculum and voices allowed into the social studies classroom. When you narrow the subject of study you narrow the possibilites for innovative thought. Students should study history and analyze it using primary and secondary sources, but I don’t want them to have to limit their positions based on what liberals or conservatives believe history should be. History is an interpretive subject, not a static subject.

The key for my classroom is freedom for the students. I don’t want to mold my students all into the same shape. I want them to be part of the free market place of ideas and figure the world out for themselves. I want them to mold themselves.

One thing that happens in my classroom is that students know I have a point of view and I don’t try to hide it from them. The first reason is because students are not stupid and this needs to be repeated many times. They know I am a person in the world, who has my own thoughts and ideas. And if they don’t know this, it is time to learn. There is no such thing as an unbiased person. Second, I am not concerned with indoctrinating students with my worldview, I am interested in helping students find their own way through our world. To help students on this path I believe it is important to give up my position of authority over the students.

I recently finished Rob Haworth’s edited volume, Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, it it helped me put some framework behind my pedagogy.  I believe that a good teacher should experiment or at least think about some of the ideas in the book.

The one problem I had going through my student teaching experiences was the fact that I saw teachers who refused to be wrong in front of their students. These teachers imposed a paradigm in the classroom where they held all the information and the student none. This is the similar relationship between standardized tests and students. When students believe that people in authority positions hold the keys to the right answers, they will become more concerned with approval or the “right answers” instead of taking risks and figuring out the world for themselves.

“To anarchists, the whole idea of teachers imposing authority on children and there being a hierarchical learning relationship where knowledge is poured into the silent, obedient heads of students, is an anathema (Avrich, 2006).”

This is an anathema to anarchists, but wouldn’t you expect it also to be an anathema to the Tea Party. I would hope nobody wants this type of relationship.  Do people really believe that their kids are too dumb to think for themselves? We should want our students concerned not with the answers, but instead with how to go about figuring out how to get to those answers.

Teachers need to be honest with students. I have a worldview and it might distort what I present. I tell them to question me, question everything, and involve themselves in searching for truths in the world. Getting students to engage in this type of behavior is more beneficial than having them memorize facts. In order to explore biases of sources and debates in social studies the student have they will have to engage in facts and readings to figure out the world. Facts aren’t dead, they are just getting some context with this type of learning.

The model of schooling in which the teachers are the knowledge keepers chops down the branches of possibility in our social studies classrooms. No one person or groups of person has the market cornered on the correct history of the world.

We also need to teach students to embrace a radical imagination, “put simply, it is a process by which we collectively map “what is, narrate it as the result of “what was,” and speculate on what “might be.” (pg. 228 Anarchist Pedagogies.)

This radical imagination should be used by students to imagine a better world. I know that I don’t have all of the answers to fix the problems that we face as a society, but I do know I have the power to give my power over my students up. The greatest thing that students can take away from my classroom is that they were empowered to think, discuss, analyze, criticize and act on their beliefs. There is no bubble on a test that you can fill in to prove you can do this. Bubbles are made to contain things and we should stop trying to contain our students possibilities.

Categories: Uncategorized

Learning and work

12/30/2012 Leave a comment

“The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren’t being paid for it. It’s work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns.”

Noam Chomsky

My experience of finally getting a teaching job, then getting laid off, then getting another teaching job has led me to thinking a lot about the purpose of work. I hated substitute teaching, but I would say that I hated not working more, but substituting allowed me to enjoy the amount of reading and interest driven learning.

Substitute teaching was mindless work, but it was the mindless work that let my mind wander and really focus on the reading that I did. I grew a lot intellectually.

Now I am employed again as a full time teacher and part of me misses that time that I had to focus on my interests. But, they have been refocused on the learning of my students. This has been an even more rewarding experience. I can take the things that I wanted to learn about and bring those ideas and experiences to my students in my classroom.

I’ve really enjoyed my time off over winter break. I got time to read a book I wanted to and to watch movies that I’ve been waiting to watch. Now, I am recharged and ready to attack the next semester. I’m ready to meet my students need and grow with them as learners. It’s a task we all need to be invested in and I am prepared to learn with them in ways they have never experienced before.

This is the work that I want to do. I want to figure out how to better understand the world. No matter how many books and articles I read I will not understand the world better, unless I begin the interaction with people. My substitute teaching isolated me in my own academic cocoon. Now, it’s time for my teaching job to help me move to the next step in my learning.

Work is fun.

Categories: teaching

The reason why test scores are so low?

12/02/2012 Leave a comment

Because they aren’t offering the teachers gift certificates. Duh.

In an article, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about the lack of accountability and low test scores in voucher or choice schools in Milwaukee, one schools says that to improve the test scores they plan on 

Travis also said her schools are aiming to improve, including more workshops for teachers, a new curriculum director, and incentives for successful teachers such as gift certificates.

Because you know many teachers are just cruising by the workday, but if you wave a $20 dollar gift certificate to Ruby Tuesday in front of their face and you’ll get some top quality teaching. This is an insult to teachers. Teachers work hard and gift certificates are not going to make them work harder. Believing that is to believe that teachers teach for money first and students second. But, let me tell you: Teachers do not teach for the money.

What is also interesting is that the article does not talk about how voucher schools don’t require their teachers to have teacher licenses or sometimes even a degree in a related field. What they also don’t talk about is the disturbing rates in which some of these voucher schools pay their teachers.

Dorthy Travis is making around $216,000 and Michelle Lukas is making around $125,000. Teachers in these schools are making nowhere comparable to what their public school counterparts are making and with less benefits. But, these school CEOs are making bank and with no accountability.

Now, an important thing to note is that in my experiences that teachers at these schools do care about their students a lot and work hard, but the shadiness in these programs are at the top.

Choice schools were pushed to give students an option to go to “better” schools, but these schools aren’t doing any better. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. The reason why these schools aren’t doing better and why many schools in Milwaukee struggle is not because of the teachers or low standards; The reason why schools are doing bad is because the socioeconomic factors of these kids lives has a major impact on school.

We need to work to full employment with living wages, easy and cheap access to health care, rethinking of the drug wars, and curriculum that is meaningful to students lives. Now let’s see some accountability on the politicians to fix these problems.

Categories: Uncategorized

Glad Romney lost, but how happy am I that Obama won?

11/07/2012 1 comment

It’s over. The biggest most important election of our lifetimes. Til the next one.

I am glad that Mitt Romney lost. I don’t think he is a bad guy, but I believe his policies are perverse and scary as a vision for our future.

That being said, I am not really excited about an Obama win. The election was huge for some very liberal senators (Baldwin, Warren, Brown), but Obama is not the raging socialist that conservatives state him to be. He is a pragmatic centrist.

The issue that I am not happy about is Obama’s education policy. We saw very little said about education during this campaign and when they did talk about it they were in agreement.

Obama was pushed to a win by the work of youth, people of color, unions, teachers, and women. Now it is time to keep pushing him.

We have to demand changes on his educational policy because they are not working.

We need to abandon Race to the Top and the fetishizing about standardized testing and data points.

We need to reinvest in public schools and realize how charters are no better and have less accountability and juke their stats by ridding themselves of students with special needs and students with behavioral problems.

We need to reaffirm the false choice that the choice movement is in schools.

We should have all schools being properly funded with good wages and benefits and pensions for the teachers who work there. And proper accommodations and supplies for the students to use.

We need to invest in all parts of education not just math and science. Social studies, foreign language, music, art, physical education are all really important for a well rounded child.

We need to demand the resignation of Arne Duncan and in his place a Secretary of Education who has many meaningful years of teaching.

We need to fight back against the corporate education reform and trust our teachers as guardians of our schools.

Now I know that many people want a break from politics and to just relax for a while, but the fight is never over. We need to push President Obama on these issues. We can’t let his current educational policies become the norm for our political debates.

Obama was the lesser of two evil candidates for me. Now is the time to push him to be even less evil.

Categories: Obama

Thoughts of the Laid Off Teacher

11/05/2012 Leave a comment

“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.” Found a Job by Talking Heads

I applied this lyric to my life and I believe that I have found what I love. But it was taken away from me. It had nothing to do with my ability as a teacher or my inabilities to jump through the hoops that are educational system puts us through. I got laid off because of a poorly planned budget.

First, let’s recap some of my background.

I jumped around as a undergraduate. I was lost. I never got pushed as a student in high school and when I got to college I believed that I would be able to coast through. I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

The work was challenging because I never really applied myself to academic work before. (I still struggle because of this, even though I’ve gotten my master’s, writing is a major chore for me and I’m embarrassed right after I finish each sentence.) I nearly failed out and didn’t ask anybody for help. I was drowning. I got really depressed and thought I had messed up big.

Then I took a history class over summer. I worked second shift and took my class in the morning. Three hours a day, but I loved every second of it. I had always been good at history because I have a good memory and most history classes, if not all, are ones that really only focused on memorizing a topic. I was so occupied with school and work I had no time to feel sorry for myself.

I found history and graduated and then decided to get my master’s in education. Financially and career-wise this was probably a mistake. But, intellectually and overall happiness-wise this was the best decision of my life. I loved pushing pushed and challenged academically. I would not be the teacher I am today had I not gotten my master’s. It was the best worst decision of my life.

I thought I was on my way, but reality then set in. I graduated at semester and had to move back home and substitute teach. It really wasn’t that bad. At first, but you can only had out worksheets and pop in a terrible history documentary so many times before you want to just give up. That summer I only got 3 interviews and no offers. I was hired as a building substitute, the next year, which was more consistent work, but just as mind numbing.

So I got to this past summer. I couldn’t find a high school social studies summer job, so I ended up teaching elementary reading classes. I was willing to do anything to get into a classroom. I got a lot of interviews over summer. This was surprising, especially considering the others who were social studies teachers in my cohort only got a couple interviews and I had seven. But still no job.

Then, I got my break. I got hired at a private school as a part time teacher. I don’t think I’ve ever had as happy an event as that.

I didn’t even care that it was a choice school, I just wanted to teach.

Now being on the inside of an institution that I disagree with philosophically was an interesting experience. But I will say this: the teachers at this school cared about their students as much, if not more than the teachers at the public schools I had subbed at. There were some amazing teachers at this school. Administratively, I’m still unsure about the structure that was in place.

The other nice thing about the school, at least for me, was I was given complete autonomy over my curriculum. I would never get this at a public school. I took my students through lessons that I hoped helped them question the dominate paradigms of our society. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT A GOOD SOCIAL STUDIES CLASS SHOULD DO! It shouldn’t have you memorize facts. Any child can memorize facts, but if a student can analyze, synthesize, critique, and create knowledge that’s what a historian does or should do.

To give an example of some of the topics covered in my class, we talked about: gender roles in society, whether or not it was right to kill Osama Bin Laden or should he be put on trial, the role that money plays in elections and legislation, why there are only two major parties and why both parties like it that way, marijuana legalization, police brutality and abuses, and why I was the only white person in the room.

Tell me what standardized test will measure the learning that went on in these classes. You can’t, because none exists.

Then I learn in the middle of the week that we are having a meeting about our budget. I find out I’m going to get laid off by power point slide. I’m crushed. And still am. I have one more class left with my students.

I decide to give my last lecture. (Funny considering a few things: first job, new teacher, I’m not even sure what it means.) But basically I wanted to students to hear from me what I had hoped for them to get out my classes. I told them that they are all smart no matter what a test says. That the tests are racially and economically biased and don’t mean anything. I tell them about how much they have taught me because their stories and experiences are much different than mine and I’ve learned so much from them all. I tell them to find purpose in life. Treat people with kindness and fairness. To hope. To dream.

I don’t know if it got to them. I opened up and I let my emotions flowed. I cried; I cried a lot that day. Some cried with me. Many hugged me. They wanted to petition and they did a sit in, and I appreciated it, but I know I’m not going to get back to them.

I had students tell me that I was going to be ok. I told them that I knew I was going to be ok. I’m a white straight male the game is rigged in my favor, but I told them that they had to make sure that they questioned everything and understood that they had power. I wanted to help them get through their journey.

7 weeks. That’s all I had with them, but I’ll never forget them. It sometimes doesn’t even feel real, but instead feels like the best dream I ever had and will never be able to recreate.

Now I am back trying to get on sub rolls and I already dread it. But those kids gave me purpose. I know that I am suppose to be a teacher. I could do nothing else. Teaching is not a job for me. Teaching is me.

Categories: teaching

The Ennui Continues…

10/26/2012 Leave a comment

Sadly, I am back to blogging.

Why am I back? I was recently laid off from a teaching job because of budget reasons.

I had gone so long without a teaching jobs, struggling through the substitute teaching and ennui that accompanied it. I was depressed and then lifted. Now I am back down again.

I loved teaching. I loved having my own classroom. I loved the interaction with the students. It was so inspiring.

But now I am back.

Hopefully, I will find something soon. I like to write, but it’s not a natural thing for me. Teaching was. I was pumped everyday to go to work and see how I could push the students. It felt great.

What now?

Back to subbing.

I hope I can survive it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Why I Won’t Vote for Obama

06/02/2012 1 comment

The 2012 election is being billed as the “most important election of our time.” That’s what they always say. As a progressive, it would seem natural for me to support President Obama, but this will not be the case this year. The reason why I won’t vote for Obama is because I have strong principles and a lot of Obama’s actions offend them.

Now, some might say that it is wrong for a progressive to not support Obama because that’s just a vote for Romney. Frankly, I won’t vote for somebody who goes against many of the principles that I hold in order to  not let another get office. For me, Obama has become the other. (Don’t get me wrong, Romney isn’t any better.)

Now just creating a list off the top of my head, here are some of the reasons.

  • Race to the Top
  • Expansion of drone attacks
  • Aggressive Middle East foreign policy
  • Indefinite detention
  • Obama’s kill list
  • Assassination of American citizens without due process
  • The number of innocent children who have been killed because of Obama’s foreign policy
  • Obama’s corporate friendly health care reform and not pushing for single payer or public option
  • Willingness to sacrifice the safety net
  • His environmental record (fracking, offshore drilling, etc)
  • Extension of Bush tax cuts
  • Troy Davis
  • Bradley Manning
  • Arne Duncan
  • Not actively campaigning against Scott Walker

I cannot sacrifice my principles. And I will not. Has Obama done some good. Yes, but it’s not enough. His presidency has not addressed the most pressing needs of our country: Inequality. Economic, educational, social inequality. The blindness that many suffer because of the cult of personality of Obama is sickening. Wake up people!



Categories: Uncategorized